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History of Hypnosis

History of Hypnosis | Dr. Steve G. Jones

Hypnosis in Ancient Cultures

The word “hypnosis” comes from the Greek word Hypnos, meaning sleep. James Braid is given credit for coining the phrase in 1843, due to his belief (at the time) that hypnosis was strongly related to sleep.[1] Later, he revised his thinking and tried to rename it “monoideism” (fixation of attention), but the term hypnosis had already caught on and proved difficult to change.[2] Despite the phrase not existing as we know it until the 1840s, it is thought that elements of hypnotism go back to civilizations before 1AD. In the video and article below, I will share with you the important points from my research on the history of hypnosis:

It is difficult to know if what we now consider hypnosis existed in ancient times, primarily because records of ancient communications are rare and not very specific. There are mentions in early texts, however, that appear to indicate hypnosis-related behavior. The ancient Hindus, Egyptians, and American Indians talked about certain practices that appear to employ elements of modern hypnotism, including references to the use of fixed-attention, incantations, and trance-like states.[2]

Most of the ancient use of hypnotism appears to have revolved around healing. Sleep temples were created by ancient Egyptians, Grecians, and Romans to help with medical remedies. In ancient Greece and Rome, these temples were dedicated to the physician-God Asclepius. In ancient Greece, the physician, Asclepiades, treated pain by stroking with his hands and inducing trance-like states, possibly as a form of anesthesia.[2]

While the ancient use of hypnosis is somewhat muddled, due to the lack of precise description, it is striking how aspects of what we now know as hypnosis seem to have been utilized by different cultures in early civilization.

Modern Hypnosis

While aspects of hypnotism have existed for thousands of years, it is thought that the magnetism movement and its preceding activities were the precursors of what is taught in modern hypnosis schools.

Magnetism Before Mesmer

Although Anton Mesmer and his “animal magnetism” gets much of the credit for introducing the principles of modern hypnotism to the world, it needs to be acknowledged that the theory he popularized was taken from a few sources. The use of magnets for medical healing goes back to Paracelsus, the 16th-century Swiss alchemist, and William Maxwell, his 17th-century Scottish follower.[3]In fact, in 1775, Maximilian Hell published a report of magnetic cures already achieved in France and England.[2]
It is fair to say that Mesmer piggybacked off these ideas and tweaked them to solidify his own theory.

Gassner’s Exorcisms

A person who Mesmer encountered on his way to fame was Johann Gassner, a priest who gets little credit for his prominent role in the history of hypnosis. Gassner did not believe in magnetism, but rather thought that ailments were brought about by supernatural forces of evil.[4] Thus, the need for an exorcism to heal their illness. Despite his unscientific reasoning, there were aspects of Gassner’s work, such as using hypnotic techniques for self-control, that are now seen as important steps toward modern hypnotism.[4] His work slightly preceded Mesmer, who thought that Gassner achieved his goals through animal magnetism. Historically speaking, this was the dawn of the age of enlightenment. The views of science were beginning to win out over the supernatural, especially in the area of medicine. Gassner’s reliance on the theory that he was exorcising evil spirits ultimately doomed him, especially when compared to the more scientific-sounding aspects of magnetism. Despite his name being relegated to a footnote in history, it is now thought by some that his emphasis on psychological processes, as compared to physical magnetism, is much more similar to what we now understand about hypnosis.[4]


Animal Magnetism

Although he did not invent the theory, Mesmer coined the phrase “animal magnetism” and popularized magnetism’s use in healing. In retrospect, it is thought he may have plagiarized his dissertation from the work of Richard Mead and/or William Maxwell.[2][5] Mesmer believed that magnetic fluids within our body were critical for our health. When these fields were out of balance, or in conflict with each other, they could cause illness. He claimed that he could manipulate the flow of these fluids, thus returning the person to a state of health. Initially, manipulation was done through the use of magnets. Later in his practice, he rejected the use of magnets and claimed that by passing his hands over a body he could rebalance the magnetic flow, due to his individual powers of magnetism.[2] Mesmer was very theatrical in his presentation and his actions could be considered similar to a modern stage hypnotist. He initially began to practice magnetism in Vienna, but was soon derided as a fraud and went to Paris, where he achieved most of his success. In 1779, he published a paper on animal magnetism, which elucidated his theory and started him on the road to extraordinary acclaim among the public.[5]

The Franklin Commission

After achieving great popularity in France, a commission was formed by King Louis XVI in 1784 to scrutinize the validity of Mesmer’s theory.[6] As had occurred in Vienna, many members of the scientific community were skeptical of Mesmer’s beliefs. Benjamin Franklin was a prominent member of the committee and history has often called it the Franklin Commission. The committee ultimately found that there was no scientific validity behind the theory of animal magnetism.[3] Although the claims of magnetism were debunked, many people claimed to be helped by Mesmer’s work. The Franklin commission was taxed with evaluating the theory behind Mesmer’s work, as opposed to whether it was actually effective. Due to suggestion and imagination—aspects of a hypnotic trance—it is possible that people were helped by Mesmer, just not in the way he hypothesized. After Mesmer’s theory was debunked, the use of magnetism decreased significantly, but some of its processes were carried on by his followers, allowing hypnotic techniques to survive.[6]

Magnetism After Mesmer


The Marquis de Puysegur was a French aristocratic who was a disciple of Mesmer. He continued to practice under the flag of magnetism, but moved the theory away from the importance of magnets and instead focused on “artificial somnambulism”—the trance-like state characteristic of more modern hypnotic work, which seemed to occur in the majority of magnetized clients.[5] Puysegur’s work signified the beginning of the end of magnetism as it was known under Mesmer.


Jose Custodio de Faria, a Portuguese priest, took Puysegur’s work a step further. It can be said that his theory marked the end of the magnetism movement. In the early 19th century he proposed that it was not magnetism or the hypnotist that was responsible for inducing a trance state, but was instead the result of the imagination of the subject. He is also credited with introducing suggestion into hypnosis; he practiced suggestion in the waking state and post-hypnosis.[7]

In retrospect, we can track how the magnetism movement evolved over 50 years: its focus shifted from initial acceptance of the power of magnets to a belief in the power of individual magnetists, to finally focusing on the internal processes of the person as to the reason for its effectiveness.

Hypnosis As Anesthesia

In the early to mid-19th-century, hypnosis gained popularity as a form of anesthesia.
This was likely helped along by the lack of medical treatments that could produce analgesic effects. Chloroform and ether were not used as anesthetics until the mid-1840s.[2] Up until that time, most surgeries were conducted without any treatment to dull the pain.

Doctors Who Used Hypnosis As Anesthesia


John Elliotson was a respected British physician who was open to non-traditional medical techniques. He became interested in traditional magnetism and sought to use it to treat his patients.[5] When the theory of magnetism was eventually debunked, he lost some of his credibility; However, he still believed in its effect even if he could not prove its underlying theory. In 1834, Elliotson reported 76 operations in which he had used hypnosis as the sole form of anesthesia.[2] He later treated a patient with breast cancer using magnetism — thought to be the first cancer patient treated with hypnotic techniques — and she was found to be cancer-free upon her death.[2] One should keep in mind that correlation does not imply cause and effect. We cannot conclude from this evidence that hypnosis cured cancer.


The Scottish surgeon, James Esdaile, practicing in India, performed thousands of minor and hundreds of major operations using hypnosis in the 1840s and 1850s.[2]. He believed in magnetism and would pass his hands over his patients while stroking their skin in order to promote pain relief. It was reported that only five percent of his patients died during surgery — the average was about 50 percent — causing many to believe that hypnosis was the reason for the lower mortality rate.[2] Again, please keep in mind my caution above about correlation. Many of his patients reported that they felt no pain at all during their surgeries. It is believed that the rubbing of the skin caused analgesic effects. Although chloroform and ether were introduced as anesthetics at about that same time, he touted his success, along with the lack of side effects, as a reason for the continued use of his techniques.[10] Because of his success rate, despite how it may have been achieved, his work did not face the same level of scrutiny as Elliotson.


James Braid was a Scottish doctor who was intrigued by the use of magnetism as an anesthetic, but rejected the main theory that it was related to magnetic fluids and the power of magnetists. Instead, he thought that a hypnotic trance was the result of individual processes. Although he agreed with Faria, who believed that the trance state was the result of the individual’s internal mechanisms, he differed in that he thought it was entirely a physical process.[7] Braid attempted to delineate his beliefs from traditional magnetism by naming his process “hypnosis.”[5] Besides naming the practice as it exists today, his emphasis on relaxation and fixed-eye induction techniques make him a pioneer in the field.[2]

Criticism of Hypnosis as Anesthesiaa

Using hypnosis as anesthesia attracted many critics. Many in the medical community thought it was irresponsible and unproven.[5] The development of chloroform, nitrous oxide and ether soon won acceptance by most of the medical community for use as general anesthetics.[1] However, largely as a result of its successful use as an anesthetic, the church accepted the use of hypnosis in 1847, stating that is could find no reason for it to be morally forbidden[1] Despite the introduction of medicinal anesthetics, hypnosis is still successfully used today by some doctors in conjunction with other analgesics.[8]

Schools of Hypnosis

The French Schools of Hypnosis

The rest of the 19th century was dominated by the developments coming from the French schools of hypnosis: the Nancy and Salpetriere schools of thought. Their competition and enduring conclusions formed the basis for much of the theory of modern hypnotherapy training.

The Nancy School

The work of Braid and Faria provided the foundation for the work of the Nancy school of hypnosis, named for its location in Nancy, France. The Nancy school rejected magnetism and embraced suggestion as the primary basis of hypnosis.[9] The Nancy school was founded by Ambroise-Auguste Liebeault, a French doctor who initially embraced magnetism, but soon became convinced that hypnosis was entirely a psychological process; he eventually saw hypnosis as a state that could be produced by suggestion. He believed anybody could be hypnotized.[2]

Liebeault’s work attracted Hippolyte Bernheim to visit his clinic. Bernheim was a neurologist who was initially skeptical of hypnosis but, after observing Liebeault, abandoned medicine to become a hypnotherapist.[10] Bernheim popularized the use of suggestion with his book Suggestive Therapeutics, making the theory of hypnotic suggestion known within the medical community.[10]

The Salpetriere School

Jean-Martin Charcot became Chief of Medicine at the Salpêtrière women’s asylum in 1862.[10] Unlike Liebeault and Bernheim, he believed hypnosis to be a physiological state associated with hysteria.[2] He theorized that hypnosis occurred in three stages: “catalepsy, lethargy and somnambulism”.[10] His conclusions were based on a limited sample of “hysterically ill” women, which left him open to criticism. Because he believed hypnosis was related to hysteria, he did not believe that non-clinical subjects could be hypnotized.

Nancy vs. Salpetriere

Charcot did not believe imagination played a role in hypnosis and thought the hypnotic state was only possible in those people with psychopathology. Although he did believe in the power of suggestion, he did not think suggestion was the major cause of hypnotic activity. These major differences led to a great rivalry between the two French schools. Much of Charcot’s work was eventually discredited and the overall conclusions of the Nancy school were embraced by the hypnosis community.[2] Despite the demise of the Salpetriere, the interest fueled by the two schools of thought is often thought of as the golden age of hypnosis.[7]


The work of Pierre Janet owes a debt to both of the French schools of hypnosis. He studied with Charcot in Paris and later with Bernheim in Nancy. He developed theories of unconscious processes, dissociation and traumatic memory.[2] Although he initially believed that hypnosis was a physiological process, he was later convinced that suggestion was the cause of hypnotic activity. Still, his work with Charcot had a major influence over him. His innovative theory that thoughts can become dissociated from conscious awareness was a result of his work with hysterical patients at Salpetriere.[10]

The Historical Bridge Between Hypnosis and Psychology

Despite the victory of the Nancy school of thought, the popularity of hypnosis waned after the end of the 19th century.[10] The conclusion that hypnosis was the result of suggestion, rather than a physiological process, moved it outside the realm of conventional medical study. Additionally, the use of hypnosis in stage shows damaged its reputation as a serious science.[10] Many people believed that hypnotists were charlatans and possibly dangerous. In fact, in 1952, hypnosis for entertainment purposes was banned in England, due to a reported injury to a girl during a stage show.[11] Further, the work of Sigmund Freud devalued the use of hypnosis and led to the emergence of psychotherapy as a possible replacement.[1]

Psychologists Who Used Hypnosis


Sigmund Freud was a young Viennese physician when he came to France to study under Charcot at the Salpetriere. He came to believe in hypnosis and was especially interested in its uses in treating the psychopathology of hysteria.[9] He soon collaborated with a colleague, Josef Breuer, in using hypnosis in the treatment of hysteria. Freud’s work with one of Breuer’s patients, Bertha Pappenheim, is said to be the foundation for the birth of psychoanalysis.[10] Freud eventually grew frustrated with hypnosis for several reasons, primary among them that he could only hypnotize a fraction of his patients. At the turn of the century, he abandoned hypnosis in favor of the technique of free association.[12] Although Freud left the practice of hypnosis behind, it is clear that much of his psychoanalytic theory grew out of his work with hypnosis, foremost among this was his focus on the unconscious mind. Unfortunately, Freud’s rejection of hypnosis, along with its move away from the realm of physical medicine, dealt the field a blow from which it took decades to recover.


Although hypnosis was still practiced in the early 20th century, its reputation had been tarnished. Its return to credibility occurred in the 1920s under the umbrella of experimental psychology. Clark Hull was a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin who studied under Joseph Jastrow, a professor who taught courses about hypnosis. Hull believed that hypnosis research had never achieved a respectable level of experimental validity.[13] Indeed, the studies of Charcot and others were done using their own patients and the conclusions were highly biased. He believed the study of hypnosis should occur in a laboratory and was the first to legitimize the experimental study of hypnosis.[13] In addition, Hull was the first to measure hypnotic suggestibility in participants and gave rise to the state/non-state debate, the argument whether hypnosis is a special state of consciousness or an everyday state of being. Hull was definitive in his belief that hypnosis was a different state than sleep.[13]


Milton Erickson studied at the University of Wisconsin at the same time as Hull, but they could not have been more different. Erickson was more interested in the clinical use of hypnosis and took it in a direction that dominated the second half of the 20th century. He used hypnosis as a way of promoting change through the unconscious mind. Like some of the great hypnotists of the 19th century, he wished to use hypnotism to heal people of their maladies. There are three main facets of Ericksonian hypnosis:

  1. Hypnosis is an altered state of consciousness, distinct from our waking state.
  2. hypnotizability of the person is largely due to the skill of the hypnotherapist, rather than the participant.
  3. Indirect hypnotic suggestions are often more successful than direct suggestions.

Erickson tailored his style to meet the needs of his patients, making him difficult to imitate. He is seen as highly-influential as both a hypnotist and psychotherapist.[14]

The Clinical Use of Hypnosis

The use of hypnosis as a clinical treatment for various ailments has been accepted by portions of the psychology and medical professions, but not without some skepticism. Largely helped along by the work of Erickson, the clinical use of hypnotism saw a resurgence from World War II onward.

Pain Relief

The success of hypnosis for reducing multiple forms of pain has an extensive recent history.[8] In 1956, Pope Pius XII noted its use in reducing the pain of childbirth. Similarly, the American Medical Association, in 1958, recommended it for certain medical and dental uses in the United States.[1] More recently, it has been used as an anesthetic aid in surgery, as well as an analgesic for burns and headaches.[1] Additionally, it has been found to reduce the anxiety and pain related to dental procedures.[15] Further, a National Institutes of Health panel issued a statement in 1996 indicating that there was strong evidence that hypnosis alleviated pain related to cancer.[1]

General Medical Issues

Hypnosis has had varying success in treating a variety of medical problems (challenges) including allergies, irritable bowel syndrome, warts, asthma, and hypertension. It has even shown some promise with the issues of impotence and obesity.[1]

Mental Health

Starting with Charcot and Freud, hypnosis has a long history in treating mental health issues. Indeed, as we have seen in the work of Hull and Erickson, it appears that psychology and hypnosis are often intertwined. In the 20th and 21st century, hypnosis has often been used to treat a myriad of psychological issues. In particular, the use of hypnosis has been found to aid in the treatment of post traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression.[16]

Forensic Hypnosis And Memory Retrieval

Is Hypnosis Reliable In Memory Retrieval?

During the late 20th century, hypnosis began to be used to uncover memories as evidence in legal cases. This was especially true in cases involving abuse, where memories might be repressed, due to emotional trauma. While many law enforcement officials have found hypnosis useful for recovering lost memories, it is not without its controversy[17] Research has found three areas in which the use of hypnosis may lead to flawed memory recall:[18]

  1. Confabulation or distortion of the memory.
  2. Creation of false memories.
  3. Over-confidence in the reporting of the memory.

Hypnosis Laws

Due to the lack of reliability in the use of hypnosis, certain states have created laws which specify how hypnosis may be used in legal cases. For example, in 1982, the California Supreme Court outlawed the use of hypnosis in procuring direct evidence, concluding that it caused pseudo-memories in victims. However, the court ruled that information obtained through hypnosis may be used to obtain leads that may aid in the securing of additional admissible evidence.[19] These California laws seem to sum up the use of hypnosis as a forensic tool across the United States. While it can be helpful, courts are reluctant to completely rely upon it for evidence.


Hypnotic techniques have a long and storied history. Although skepticism has accompanied hypnotism since its inception, its successful use as a pain reliever and medical treatment has dotted the landscape for centuries. Despite controversy as to the exact mechanism behind its success, it continues to be associated with positive outcomes. In the tradition started by Clark Hull, further research is needed to delineate the aspects of hypnosis that have led to its success. Due to its benefits and low risks, it is likely that hypnosis will survive for the next millennium.


  1. ^Stewart, J.H. (2005). Hypnosis in contemporary medicine.
    Mayo Clinic Proceedings, 80(4), 511 – 524.
  2. ^Hammond, C. (2013). A review of the history of hypnosis through the late 19th century, American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis, 56(2), 174-191, doi:10.1080/00029157.2013.826172.
  3. ^Kihlstrom, J.F. (2002). Mesmer, the Franklin Commission, and hypnosis: A counterfactual essay. International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis, 50(4), 407-419, doi:10.1080/00207140208410114.
  4. ^Peter, B. (2005). Gassner’s exorcism—not Mesmer’s magnetism—is the real predecessor of modern hypnosis. International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis, 53(1),1-12, doi:10.1080/00207140490914207.
  5. ^Pintar, J. and Lynn, S.J. (2008). Hypnosis: a brief history. doi:10.1002/9781444305296.
  6. ^Fernandez, A. (2019). Was this hypnotic health craze an elaborate hoax or a medical breakthrough?
  7. ^Cavanagh, J.R. (1972). History of psychotherapy: II. hypnosis. The Linacre Quarterly, 39(4), Article 6.
  8. ^Montgomery,G.H., Duhamel, K.N. & Redd, W.H. (2000) A meta-analysis of hypnotically induced analgesia: How effective is hypnosis? International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis, 48(2), 138-153, doi:10.1080/00207140008410045.
  9. ^Gezundhajt, H. (2007). An evolution of the historical origins of hypnotism prior to the twentieth century: between spirituality and subconscious. Contemporary Hypnosis, 24, 178-194, doi:10.1002/ch.341.
  10. ^Pintar, J. and Lynn, S.J. (2008). Hypnosis: a brief history. doi:10.1002/9781444305296.
  11. ^Hypnotism Act (1952). Chapter 46, 15 and 16, Geo 6 and 1, Eliz 2.
  12. ^Bachner-Melman, R. & Lichtenberg, P. (2001). Freud’s relevance to hypnosis: a reevaluation, American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis, 44(1), 37-50, doi:10.1080/00029157.2001.10403454.
  13. ^Page, R.A. (1992). Clark Hull and his role in the study of hypnosis. American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis, 34(3),178-184, doi:10.1080/00029157.1992.10402842.
  14. ^Matthews, W.J. (2000). Ericksonian approaches to hypnosis and therapy: Where are we now?, International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis, 48(4), 418-426, doi:10.1080/00207140008410370.
  15. ^Holden, A. (2012). British Dental Journal 212, 549–551. The art of suggestion: the use of hypnosis in dentistry. doi:10.1038/sj.bdj.2012.467.
  16. ^Green, J. P., Laurence, J.R., & Lynn, S. J. (2014). Hypnosis and psychotherapy: from Mesmer to mindfulness. Psychology of Consciousness: Theory, Research, and Practice, 1(2), 199-212.
  17. ^Perry, C., & Laurence, J.R. (1983). The enhancement of memory by hypnosis in the legal investigative situation. Canadian Psychology/Psychologie canadienne, 24(3), 155-167. 8
  18. ^Wester, W.C., Hammond, D.C. (2011). Solving crimes with hypnosis. American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis, 53(4), 249-263, doi:10.1080/00029157.2011.10404355.
  19. ^Kincade, P. (1986) Hypnosis and law enforcement in California. Hypnosis and law enforcement in California. Journal of California Law Enforcement, 20(3),125-128.

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